Shelby Clark. Peers
Shelby Clark and I are trying to get to Blue Bottle Coffee. We meet up at the San Francisco Chronicle building in SOMA, where Clark runs the sharing economy startup Peers from an upstairs coworking space, and we attempt to dodge across Mission Street in the middle of the block.
Four lanes of traffic. Two bike lanes. Bad idea. At first, we banter convivially as the cars whiz by. Then we stop talking and watch for an opening. After a failed attempt in which we hastily retreat to the sidewalk, we walk the half-block to the light, wait for it to turn, and cross the street. It’s a safer way to reach the same destination, and it seems like a perfect metaphor for the journey that Peers has been on since it launched in the summer of 2013.
A bearded entrepreneur clad in fluorescent yellow jeans with one earring dangling from his left ear, Clark has been on the job just less than three months. In that time, Peers has introduced a fresh mandate, launched two new products, and converted to an entirely new business structure in an attempt to bring credibility back to an organization that many had written off as a shill for the sharing economy. “There are hundreds of thousands of people that constitute an emerging workforce, and there’s no one who has their back,” he tells me. “That’s what we want to do.”
From the start, Peers was an important idea that was badly executed. Its original founders correctly noted that the sharing economy was more than an experiment. It would eventually reshape the job market as we understood it, and this new economy needed an advocacy group, both for the companies and for the workers who would fill those jobs—a new union for a new type of work. But the initial concept suffered from a grand flaw: it conflated the workers’ agenda with that of the companies building the platforms designed to employ them.
The organization had a confusing hybrid structure in which it was set up as a money-making business that was wholly owned and entirely funded by a nonprofit. It traced its origin to Airbnb, which hired a paid consultant to help develop it. Former executive director Natalie Foster, a veteran of President Obama’s digital campaign as well as the Sierra Club, called it a “grassroots organization,” yet several of its funders were founders of sharing economy startups. So whose interests did it really have in mind, the workers? Or their corporate overlords?
Peers argued that the advancement of the sharing economy was in the best interests of both. But last year, when it began hosting local events, it mostly backed actions that benefited the companies. In New York City, Peers convened Airbnb hosts to lobby state lawmakers to change the hotel laws for Airbnb. In Seattle, representatives gathered petition signatures to get the Seattle city council to permit ride-sharing services. Arguably, this created new jobs. But beyond expanding the market, did Peers actually help workers? Did it win them any protections? As Fast Company writer Anya Kamanetz asked: “Is this grassroots or Astroturf?”
It turns out that Peers is neither. It was never really grassroots, and its high-minded founders never intended for it to shill for the startups either. Peers is its own startup, a company intent on boosting the prospects of sharing economy—and making some money in the process.
No Longer an Experiment
The founders of Peers understood that the sharing economy is no longer an experiment. One in three employed Americans is working as a freelancer, according to a September 2014 report commissioned by Freelancers’ Union and Elance-oDesk. That’s an update from the 2006 report from the U.S. General Accountability Office, which held that 31 percent of American workers took on freelance work. And most new jobs created are freelance gigs, including all of the jobs emerging from the tech-powered platforms that compose the sharing economy.
There are some great things about these jobs. They often offer more flexible hours, and for those with specialized skills, they can provide exposure to broader markets. But they lack any of the protections that are afforded fulltime employees. These include protections under fair employment laws, reduced taxes, and other benefits like workers compensation. Without safety nets, workers are more vulnerable. As this new market matures, they will have to figure out how to protect themselves from many of the hazards from which employers once shielded them.
Early founders of the sharing economy hoped Peers would address this, but they underestimated the degree to which public sentiment would begin to turn on the sharing economy companies as they became more mainstream. Uber has few lovers these days (though it has no fewer riders).
This change in sentiment was rather apparent the last time I saw a Peers organizer, this past August. I was in Central Park standing in line for a free Shakespeare performance. The college-age woman asked the people around me to sign a petition to make Airbnb legal in New York, and they got into an argument about whether Airbnb should be forced to pay taxes. Someone argued it should and complained about her neighbors using the service. The young woman quickly moved on to a less combative group.
The Reset Button
Clark arrived in September as part of the groups attempt to hit the reset button—or to carry my metaphor through, to stop trying to cross in the middle of the street and walk the extra half-block to the crosswalk. A 2010 Harvard Business School graduate, Clark founded the peer-to-peer car-sharing company RelayRides, and he sees an opportunity in building products and services for the new sharing economy workers. It’s the same agenda the initial group had, but with a more transparent and tactical approach.
On December 12, the group announced it is splitting into two entities: The Peers Foundation, which still includes former executive director Natalie Foster on its board, and a separate business called Peers. The foundation, which just secured its nonprofit status in September, has yet to appoint a director, and it’s still figuring out an appropriate agenda. Clark has no connection to it. He’s in charge of the business, which is working to become a fully certified benefit corporation by 2017. Clark still holds the company’s social mission high, but now he can raise funding as well.
“You have all these people for the first time becoming independent contractors and running a business,” Clark says. “They didn’t really expect that when they signed up, and then it’s like, wait a minute, how do I pay my taxes? What about benefits and 401k? This is harder than I thought.”
The new Peers is a business that attempts to help independent proprietors connect to work, and manage aspects of their worklife in the sharing economy. Visitors to the Peers website can hit one button to find listings for many of the sharing economy companies as well as ratings and average monthly incomes. (Perhaps you’ve heard of Airbnb, for example, where Peers reports its members average $1682 per month, but have you heard of competitor Homestay.com? Peers will help you compare the economics of each.)
Another button connects Peers visitors to services designed to help them manage their businesses, including two new services that Peers itself offers. In the Bay Area, it’s testing an insurance product called Keep Driving. For $19.99 a month, drivers can ensure that if they get into an accident, they can borrow a 2015 Prius for up to four weeks. A second product offers liability insurance for homesharing services. For $36 a month, homeshares can access up to $1 million of coverage.
“The space that Peers has entered—providing the safety net for the providers of the sharing economy—is potentially huge, and really important,” says NYU Stern professor Arun Sundararajan, who has been studying the economic impact of the sharing economy and, full disclosure, is currently working on a research project with Peers. (Sundararajan recently wrote an essay on the importance of developing a new social safety net for the sharing economy.)
There are still some misleading things about the company, which has yet to name a board of directors. For one, it bills itself as a member-driven organization, but the 250,000 “members” are simply people who have signed up for its mailing list. By that measure, I count as a member.
What’s more, Peers is keeping its “.org” address, even though .org tends to refer to nonprofits, schools, and other community organizations. Fiona Ramsey, who heads up communications for Peers, points out that this follows the model held by many for-profit companies with social missions like Change.org or Craigslist.org.
And though Clark promotes Peers as a business designed to support the concerns of workers, he chooses his words carefully. “I would definitely stop short of calling what we’re doing at Peers an intended union,” he says.
Peers is also careful not to criticize any of the sharing economy companies, which are its potential advertisers, directly. When conflicts arise, he attempts to remain neutral.
‘I Don’t Know What the Answer Is’
Consider Uber’s ultra-strict rating system, which has caused some drivers to lose business and others to have their accounts deactivated. When I ask Clark about this, he says he’s heard a lot of concern and fear from drivers, but stops short of actually calling the ridesharing companies out. We have an ambiguous and slightly uncomfortable conversation laden with pauses that goes like this:
Clark: “It seems that they’re very able to act unilaterally and that’s…concerning.”
Me: “The companies themselves are able to act unilaterally?”
Clark: “I think a lot of drivers are fearful, like you said, of being deactivated. I think that that makes people very concerned about the stability of their income. I don’t know what the answer is. I do think the concept of a rating system can be a very valuable tool.”
Me: “You’re coming right up against the edge of being critical of some policies these companies are advancing. Is that something you aren’t actually able to do?”
Clark: “Peers is a member-drive organization. The actions we’re doing and the things we’re creating are in the interests of workers. We’re trying to make this easier for them. I think…[long pause]…the…[pause]…we’ve…[still longer pause] to date we’ve tried to stay relatively neutral.”
Clark goes on to say that Peers still lets members create petitions via a button on its website. Members, he says, should speak for themselves, and Peers hopes to give them the tools to do so, and to amplify their efforts.
Perhaps more significant, he’s transparent. He’s not trying to pretend Peers is a grassroots organization. Now, it’s just another startup. As the sharing economy booms, its services may well be in demand. With that, we break and head back to work, once again hitting Mission Street midblock. This time, there is no traffic. We dodge across the street without a problem. Timing, it turns out, is everything.
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